Most Utahns who have COVID-19 symptoms should forget about getting tested and just stay home, Gov. Spencer Cox and other state leaders urged Friday in what was described as a pivot to deal with a crushing surge in cases as the incredibly fast-spreading omicron variant rips through the state.
“We need now more than ever to come together,” Cox said during a news conference at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City, promising that an end to the pandemic and a return to normal for Utahns may just be weeks away based on cases starting to decline elsewhere.
One of the participants scheduled to attend the news conference, Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, wasn’t there. His spokeswoman said Adams “started having flu-like symptoms and tested positive for COVID. He is already feeling better and will be ready to start the session on Tuesday.”
When the 2022 Legislature begins meeting next week, Cox said lawmakers will consider what to do about the “test to stay” program in schools that was intended to keep students in the classroom but instead has been suspended as so many omicron cases have been identified that many schools are returning briefly to remote learning.
Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said lawmakers intend to “figure out the right path forward” on schools, pointing out that “government, as we all know, doesn’t get to decide how pandemics behave.”
But the question of whether the Legislature may overturn the mask mandates put in place by health departments in Summit and Salt Lake counties was not addressed. Reporters who did not attend the news conference in person were not allowed to ask questions.
Asked in general about masking against omicron, Cox said, “We all have to make these calculations. If you are vaxxed, and you are boosted and you are a healthy person, you make a decision based on that information.” He said for those at risk — especially the unvaccinated — “then an N95 mask could make a significant difference.”
The governor said cloth masks don’t work and although surgical-type masks may be more effective, he believes only an N95 respirator mask can limit the spread of the virus, a point later challenged by Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Utah Health.
Pavia, who is also director of hospital epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital, told reporters during a virtual news conference on the impact of omicron on children that Cox “misspoke in a way that I think is going to cause a lot of confusion. It’s a question of good, better, best.”
While an N95 mask is the best choice, Pavia said they’re not as comfortable or available as KN94 or KN95 masks, the next best option, followed by surgical masks, which are “pretty decent” if everyone is wearing them. Even cloth masks, if nothing else is available, “provides some level of protection,” the doctor said.
Utah’s new recommendations for COVID-19 testing
State epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen detailed the new advice on COVID-19 testing now that omicron has pushed Utah’s daily case counts well beyond the previous record of nearly 5,000 infections in a single day last winter in what was seen as the worst of the pandemic.
On Friday, the Utah Department of Health reported 11,128 new cases, down slightly from nearly 13,000 on Thursday, and eight additional deaths from the virus, including one that occurred prior to Dec. 14. School-aged children account for 2,797 of the state’s new cases.
“There’s so many cases going around now, we know that if you have symptoms, you most likely have COVID. So the benefit of getting that test has really decreased. What is more important is keeping you away from other people so you don’t transmit it,” Nolen said.
Now, anyone with symptoms — often described as similar to a cold or flu — should stay home and isolate for five days and “act as if you are a confirmed COVID case,” she said. That means on Day 6, those who are feeling better and don’t have a fever can return to public life as long as they wear a mask for another five days.
That may also be the time to get tested, she said.
Testing is still recommended for some Utahns, Nolen said, including those with “significant underlying conditions,” who are elderly, work with or are visiting vulnerable populations in health care or long-term care facilities, or who plan to see someone considered vulnerable to the virus.
The reason for the change is the state’s testing capacity has been stretched to the breaking point, with hourslong lines at many locations. Home testing kits, which the state had been handing out to people waiting in line for tests, are now in short supply, although Cox said more are on the way.
There are also nowhere near enough monoclonal antibody treatments to meet demand. The scarcity of the intravenous treatment has led to rationing the treatments used to prevent hospitalizations and deaths, and the rationing may be further tightened.
The state health department had already announced that testing required by some workplaces and events would no longer be provided. Nolen said companies may want to consider returning to having employees work remotely and events may need to be postponed.
The new recommendations on testing are raising questions about tracking Utah’s case counts, including from Dr. Angela Dunn, who had served as the face of the state’s response to the pandemic as state epidemiologist until last spring.
“I am skeptical about the utility of case counting for the next couple of weeks. We have maxed out testing, and now are telling symptomatic people to not get tested. Our cases will seemingly plateau, but that is just because we can’t test any more people,” Dunn, now head of the Salt Lake County Health Department, tweeted.
Is the pandemic nearing an end?
Cox said there’s “something very cruel” about a pandemic in that people must stay apart to be safe.
“That has caused immense strain on so many people, psychological strain, traumatic strain, and of course, physical strain for those families that have been impacted. There will be people hospitalized. There will be people who die from omicron, even though it’s milder,” the governor said.
Most Utahns, he said, are tired of the fighting over masking and other pandemic issues, and offered hope.
“I am more optimistic than I have been at any point in this pandemic, that with omicron spreading so rapidly, that will help us move on. That will give us the type of immunity that we’ve needed all along, to get us through this, combined with vaccines,” Cox said.
He said Utahns will be able “in the next couple weeks as those numbers come down significantly, to return to normal. And I hope each of us will come back together to forgive each other, to care for each other and to move forward. Utah is an incredible place. We’re doing well and we’re going to be doing even better moving forward.”
Pavia cautioned that he and the experts he works with don’t know when the pandemic will end.
“I think the worst of the omicron surge will only last a few weeks. I don’t think that anyone who knows anything about this disease is comfortable making long-term predictions because of the emergence of variants,” the pediatric infectious diseases specialist said.
What can come under control in a few weeks are the disruptions caused by the surge in cases, the empty grocery store shelves, forced school closures and overcrowded emergency rooms, he said, an impact on society that’s “actually as high as any we’ve seen before.”
But the doctor said while omicron may recede, he doesn’t believe it is going away.
How omicron is impacting Utah children
With omicron, Utah is also seeing “far more sick children. The numbers are about four times higher than they were at any other time,” Pavia said. He said the good news is the number of hospitalized children isn’t rising at the same rate as infections.
About 15 to 22 children with COVID-19 are regularly being admitted to Primary Children’s Hospital, up from the dozen or so in hospitals at a given time during last fall’s spike caused by the delta variant, he said. However, fewer children are ending up in the intensive care unit.
Omicron is affecting more children under 5 years old, who cannot yet be vaccinated against the virus, Pavia said, and virtually every child in the hospital is unvaccinated. Even without booster shots only available to those 12 and older, the doctor said the initial two doses provide good protection.
Emergency rooms are being overrun with children suffering from respiratory diseases, Pavia said. Most of the cases are COVID-19, but other diseases like RSV or respiratory syncytial virus, and flu are making a comeback after largely disappearing last winter due to statewide mask mandates that included schools.